From Daily Kos: Youth Detention in Colorado – A Crisis with a Crusader

From the Daily Kos:

There are many reasons America’s criminal justice system is not just, but the state of Youth Detention, particularly in Colorado, is in a full-blown crisis.  There has been an increasing “culture of violence” at the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections that is not only unsafe for the residents and staff, it is highly detrimental to the children (yes, they are children) who often experienced abuse and abandonment long before they found themselves caught in the correctional system.

A recent report, Bound and Broken: How DYC’s Culture of Violence is Hurting Colorado’s Kids and What to Do About It, released by the Colorado Child Safety Coalition, describes the nature of the crisis and calls for immediate reforms. Many children suffer bruises, scratches, rug burns, separated joints and closed head injuries as a result of the accepted practices (“pain-compliance techniques.”)  Youth are also often subjected to the use of protracted (and illegal) solitary confinement. Perhaps, worst of all, is the accepted use of a restraint similar to a straitjacket known as The Wrap. (More on this below.)


Having spent nine summers during the late 90’s and early 00’s teaching poetry at two different youth detention facilities in Colorado Springs, I long ago became aware of the heart-breaking situations that lead to and stem from incarceration in these institutions.  Kids tell you a lot in their poetry.  I wish I could tell you how much I learned talking with those kids, hundreds of them — as young as 12 and as old as 17.  The hopelessness.  The pain. The death of dreams.  I wish you could read the poems they wrote.  But even I was unaware of how badly things had deteriorated since then. Enter Colorado State Representative Pete Lee and his urgent call for action.

I met Pete Lee in 2008 when we were both volunteers for Barack Obama’s campaign in Colorado Springs.  Pete was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2010 as a Democrat representing House District 18, which includes central Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs in El Paso County.  In addition to other important legislation, he has taken a crusader’s role working to transform our broken criminal justice system from “one of retribution to one of restoration and rehabilitation.”  He has been working with the ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado Child Safety Coalition and others to bring awareness and change to this crisis.

A few weeks ago The Gazette Telegraph posted Pete and fellow representative Lois Landgraf’s guest editorial regarding the situation, citing new concerns.  If you read nothing else, please read this:

The necessity for change within state’s youth corrections system

By: Pete Lee and Lois Landgraf

September 13, 2017

Last year, 53 Colorado legislators co-sponsored a Division of Youth Corrections Reform bill, HB17-1329. It was inspired by Bound and Broken, the shocking report which described brutal abuse and mistreatment of already traumatized youth confined at DYS. It followed revelations about fights, assaults, use of protracted and illegal solitary confinement as well as riots in Spring Creek and other DYS facilities, as reported by The Gazette (“Trouble Behind Bars“, Oct. 4, 2015 and “Spring Creek Riot” Sept. 9, 2016) . Our goal with HB17-1329 was to transform the punitive culture and create a therapeutic and rehabilitative environment that would be safe for staff and youths. For kids to change, they need an environment that is safe, secure and nonviolent, one where they can develop healthy trusting and respectful relationships with adult role models. These are common-sense approaches to help ensure delinquent youth become productive responsible adults.

Throughout the legislative process, we had many meetings with DYS leaders. The theme of those meetings was the necessity for cultural change within DYS’s facilities. Although DYS leadership continued to work against the bill’s passage, they agreed that change was needed and promised it would happen. Recent events at DYS have raised continuing concerns.

Last month, a guard at the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center was charged with sexually assaulting two young girls in custody. This follows another arrest of a guard at the Gilliam Youth Detention Center in Denver last December, again for sexually assaulting two minor girls in custody there. At the end of August, a child committed suicide at the Mount View Youth Services Center in Lakewood. This was the second youth suicide at Mount View in three months.

Now we learn that DYS has honored an employee accused of brutalizing children under the protection of DYS. Mark Huerta, a guard at the Lookout Youth Services Center in Golden, and a mixed martial arts fighter, has received 35 complaints against him for “Institutional Abuse and Neglect”. Of the 17 DHS chose to investigate, it concluded that none were founded. But it noted that “there appears to be a pattern of alleged physical abuse with Mr. Mark Huerta.”

Young people at Lookout consistently identify Huerta as one of its most brutal guards. Lawyers for the incarcerated youth have also witnessed Huerta’s abusive tactics and filed complaints with the director of Lookout. Despite all of this, DYS now employs Huerta to train other staff in physical management of kids. Then, in August, they named him employee of the month. Is this the message of culture change that DYS wants to send to its staff? Does Huerta represent the DYS model for its employees?

Allegations of physical abuse, sexual assault and suicides call into question DYS’s ability and commitment to making the kind of change that is required in our state’s youth correctional system.

It is true that, after the Bound and Broken report, DYS promised to phase out some of its pain-compliance techniques, such as striking kids with knees in sensitive nerve areas and restraining youngest kids with the WRAP, a full body straight jacket, but that’s only part of the solution.

Real change will require intensive staff retraining and the willingness to reassign, rather than reward, problem guards.

The overwhelming majority of young people entrusted to DYS custody will be released into our communities. We have a right to insist that the experience DYS provides ensures that they emerge rehabilitated and equipped to succeed as productive and healthy Coloradans.

It is not the enormity of our problems but the lack of forthright commitment to solutions that stands in the way of substantive improvement.

The first step is to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. DYS must be willing to examine its practices, behavior patterns and values, and ask if they are consistent with the principles it agreed to and the changes it promised during the 2017 legislative session. If they are not, DYS must show the courage and willpower to replace them with approaches that promise the youths will emerge from its facilities better, not worse; whole, not broken. We stand ready to work with DYS to that end.


From the BOUND AND BROKEN report presented by THE COLORADO CHILD SAFETY COALITION in March of 2017:

Young people incarcerated in Colorado are in crisis. Violence in Colorado’s Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) facilities has risen dramatically in recent years, leaving youth and staff feeling unsafe and afraid. Colorado’s youth correctional facilities have higher rates of fights and assaults than other states, and youth and staff are commonly injured during these incidents. In this chaotic and violent environment, children cannot thrive.

42% increase in fights and assaults in DYC facilities, 2013-2016

108% increase in critical incidents in DYC facilities, 2013-2016

3611 times DYC staff physically restrained kids, Jan 2016-2017

2240 times DYC staff placed youth in solitary confinement, Jan 2016-17

I knew things were going from bad to worse at the detention center in Colorado Springs when the school district I had worked for bailed out of the contract for providing school for the “inmates” there in 2014, citing teacher safety concerns and other issues. But I didn’t know anything about The Wrap.


“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” 

The WRAP physical restraint device is used in at least nine of the twelve secure DYC facilities. The device is a full body restraint akin to a straitjacket. To place a young person in the WRAP, DYC staff put the youth in handcuffs, bind the youth’s legs together, and then wrap the youth in the full body restraint. A strap placed between the chest and legs forces the youth into a seated position. DYC facilities sometimes apply a “spit mask,” a cloth that covers the child’s head and face, and a helmet while the child is in the WRAP restraint. DYC reports that during the thirteen month period from January 2016 through January 2017, DYC staff have placed a young person in the WRAP at least 253 times.

Colorado is one of the few juvenile justice systems in the country that uses the WRAP restraint. Colorado’s nine DYC facilities that utilize the WRAP account for almost a quarter of all the juvenile justice facilities in the country which have contracted to use this restraint. Other jurisdictions have recognized the harm that the WRAP causes to children: in 2014, the Arkansas Juvenile Ombudsman investigated the use of the WRAP in the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center, and called the device “torture.” During his investigation, the Ombudsman subjected himself to the device and helmet, finding it was difficult to breath and that it increased anxiety. Less than two weeks after receiving the Ombudsman’s letter, the Arkansas Division of Youth Services banned the use of the WRAP, commenting that the WRAP has “no known therapeutic uses,” exposes youth to ridicule and humiliation, and presents a serious risk of harm to youth.

This video details the use of The Wrap from the perspective of a now 20-year-old former “inmate” of Colorado’s youth detention who experienced it.  He was 12 years old when he first entered into DYS.

On a personal note, I would like to ask what seems to me an obvious question:  If we are not seeking to REHABILITATE juvenile offenders, but only to PUNISH them, what HOPE is there for any of them?  What hope is there for any of us?

I have spent hours and hours with these kids, one on one.  Most of them are there not because they are “bad,” but because they have been “hurt.”  They have been abused, abandoned, neglected, rejected, and told repeatedly by someone that they are no good.  That usually leads to some kind of destructive behavior.

Some of the kids are there because they have run away from abusive homes and nothing more.  I worked in a high school where the assistant principle bragged to the staff how he managed to get chronically truant students thrown in one of these very  detention centers for a weekend as a means of teaching them a lesson.  A few of those students were in my classes.  I knew the true story.  One had parents who sometimes needed him to babysit so they could go to work.  The other lived out of the district and often his family could not afford a bus pass for him.  The AP didn’t know or care.

Spending a weekend in “jail” is extremely damaging to a the self-esteem of a young person.  He/she carries that stigma with them for years, if not forever. How can we ever expect them to emerge from these facilities in a better place if we dehumanize them rather than treat them or address the issues that bring them there?

For more information on Colorado’s Youth Incarceration Crisis, please read the Bound and Broken report, or visit…

For more information on Democratic State Rep. Pete Lee, an attorney and former small business owner, please visit his website.  Of important note, Pete is running for the state Senate in 2018.  In his fourth and final term representing House District 18, he is seeking to succeed Democrat Michael Merrifield, who is retiring, in Senate District 11.  Daily Kos should get behind this good man.

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Note:  As mentioned in Pete’s editorial, and because of the his hard work and that of the ACLU of Colorado and others, The Denver Post reported that “Colorado’s youth corrections system will end use of the wrap, a restraint similar to a straitjacket, by July 2018.”  I suppose that is progress.

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